Skull fest started off the way any utopian punk show should start—an 11 year old girl played drums in Eyeroll, a new kick-ass all-lady punk band that produced an accompanying zine with its song lyrics, while even younger kids took control of the pit, dancing and snarling like adorable baby Sid Viciouses (or maybe Poly Styrenes), and in between songs and sets could be heard accents from various regions of the U.S. and the globe. This is The Shop, one of Pittsburgh's only public all ages show spaces, and the perfect way to start off a punk fest that is intrinsically inclusive, a space that maintains all the vitality of punk.
All photos by Carolyne Whelan
Caustic Christ at The Shop
According to PUNK Magazine founder John Holmstrom, in an interview I did with him back in 1999, punk is kids' music: short, fast, loud songs played for and by short, fast, loud people. But youth is a state of mind and for so many of us, Skull Fest brought us back to our snotty roots and made us feel like kids again, though thankfully with less homework, pimples, and getting beat up outside homeroom. In November, 1997, when I was an awkward 10th grader, Aus Rotten played the last all ages show at my local punk club, The Rat, and it was possibly one of the most important events of my life, shaping who I wanted to be and what I wanted my future to look like. Those by-gone shows were in the bar's basement, just like Cattivo's all-ages space. Caustic Christ and Government Issue both played strong, impressive sets on Friday night and Behind Enemy Lines raged strong with The Pist on Saturday night, both in that basement. All shows had band and crowd members who were a little worse for the wear (Behind Enemy Lines and Caustic Christ both feature former members of Aus Rotten), but as soon as the music hit, 45-year-olds danced with 15-year-olds in the pit, legs levitated on backs and shoulders as people pig piled and crowd surfed, my glasses got thrown from my face, and everyone knew all the words. I have a lot of respect for a music festival who has the foresight to invite younger punks to play and attend a fest, because without them there is no punk. Even more than the club space, though, was outside the Shop on Saturday afternoon, hanging out between bands and watching Caustic Christ play in the alleyway, that encapsulated the vitality and endless youth that is perpetuated by a good riff and lyrics about The Man.
Siki Spacek of Black Death Resurrected at Gooski's
Skull Fest isn't without its hijinks, though this year there was less broken glass, less blood shed, and from this festival-goer's perspective, less drama. This could be because of the cost of shows, the choice of venue (Cattivo hosted the majority of the larger shows, and its security and structural layout make it difficult for people to loiter outside to listen), or because the dynamic of the bands playing was diverse enough to fend off more ne'er-do-wells. It was an interesting juxtaposition from Bloomfield's Little Italy Days, just up the block from The Shop and near the majority of Skull Fest. While the nihilists, wanders, and self-described mutants took care to keep the mess inside, not bother the neighbors (for the most part), and uphold the tenants of underground music (namely, "respect the space" and "don't blow up the spot"), the Bloomfield Little Italy Days attendees left a path of destruction in the form of trash, vomit, urine, and food waste. The “Skulluminati,” the Captain Planet style ensemble of punks from different subgenres of the scene, worked hard to successfully organize a fest that had something for everyone, except maybe yuppies. All powers combined, and together threw one hell of a party.
Skull Fest was originated from a birthday party and is still a celebration, but it's grown into so much more in its seven years. There's more camaraderie, more support, more diversity. While punk was started by weirdos and wing nuts and people on the outskirts of social power, including women and people of color, it's often the (straight white) guys whose bands have risen to the top. But at Skull Fest VII: Skull-idays in the Sun, bands like Pox, Isotope, and Tozca (all from California), Black Death Resurrected (Ohio), Malokio (Montreal), and many more in between were invited to take their space on stage, and they slayed.
Caustic Christ fans at The Shop
I was genuinely proud to be a Pittsburgher during this year's skull fest, to be a resident of the city who hosted this awesome party. I was equally proud that all the local bands represented so fiercely. No band was blown out of the water since every band, local or touring, was excellent, but when locals like Derketa, Zeitgeist, or Lady Beast finished their sets, it was clear why punks move to Pittsburgh, why we stay, and why we can throw one hell of a party. Pittsburgh punk rules okay!
Real punk is something that is often debated, typically between adolescents trying to assert their place in a scene that feels so vast until it feels too small. For me, it's that moment when everyone loses their own barriers and starts dancing and enjoying themselves, not concerned about what is socially acceptable or cool. This isn't a scene for people who want to be cool; despite this blog post, what we do really is secret for the most part, so there's no point in pretense. Dusty Hanna isn't the only person behind Skull Fest, but he appears as the face of it, partly to keep some of that secrecy in check. As his own band, Silence, played their set of danceable dark wave punk at the late night Cattivo 21+ show featuring Nervosas and Spectres who both made me want to live forever, he cracked a smile. Perhaps he noticed, as I did, that the crowd had shifted, people who were holding drinks were now holding hands and swaying, spinning in circles, and as he sang about the sound of nothing being deafening, people held nothing, twirling and dancing like free organisms. Skull Fest was a success.
While I do enjoy the hijinks, at its heart I don't think Skull Fest is the oogle screaming on the street because she is upset at her boyfriend, but is perhaps the guy with face tattoos trying to calm down this stranger he just met. It isn't the woman who tipped over and passed out for a moment outside the Brillobox, whom I think may have had a stroke as her arm tucked towards her chest and she started shaking before her eyes opened, but is the two people who rushed to her aid to bring her back to attention and call for medical help. And sure, it is partly Jimmy Rose of Ratface becoming unleashed during their reunion set at Brillobox and smashing his guitar on the PA and telling everyone he hates us, but it's also everyone laughing and loving him anyway. The magic of Skull Fest is in this very real and important moment when we are validated, and friendships are made and rekindled, and we are free to be our feral, lovely, loving, vulnerable selves.